Sunday, 27 February 2011

Human Nature — image of God?

Why is it easier to conceive of people sharing their lives and aiming for excellence in a community like a symphony orchestra than in Church? Why does religion so often seem part of the problem, not the solution? I don’t know the answer, although I'm earnestly seeking it, but I want to press the question because answering better or worse it could radically change the quality, maybe even the quantity of our future.

Let’s start with Sam Norton’s very sharp diagnosis from yesterday:
“successful orchestras recruit people who can see the beauty in submitting to a larger vision, something beyond themselves, and it is the authority of that vision, rather than the authority of any individual, that binds them together to produce something marvellously beyond the sum of their parts.

The trouble with our church is that not enough people believe in that larger vision. Ironic really, given what it says on the tin.”
Many people in Church claim to have larger visions of God, but how large is our vision of human beings, supposedly made in his image?

There is a basic Darwinian model of nature as what Woody Allen called “a huge restaurant” — dog eat dog, competition, compulsion, survival.

In the human world this is reinforced by a Freud style account of what goes on in our heads. This is seen as a competitive world of basic instincts, a darkened cellar in which a gorilla and a sex maniac are locked in mortal combat every day, slugging it out over various notionally juicy bones in ways over which they have no control.

Is this vision of humanity adequate?

How could a roiling mass of individuals like that ever produce a decent society?

Or, theologically speaking, how does it reflect the image of God?

Here’s an alternative vision of what’s going on, and the kind of community that could be built on it, from US Economist and thinker Jeremy Rifkin, delivered in visual form by the Royal Society of Arts:

So, theologians, if we want to be art of the solution, not the problem, is it time to re-visit and refresh our understanding of “the Fall of Adam?


Peter Banks said...

Good to see my Rector quoted on your blog :-)

A couple of quick and very related thoughts...

The church, both the institutions and the 'body', seem to want to repair the veil of the Temple. So there is a growing divide between the sacred and secular.

In Europe in earlier times culture often developed from within the church itself. In the eras of Handel and Bach there was not a huge gap betwixt what we now call classical music and music enhancing Divine Worship.

For various reasons the church has been developing its own cultural bubble, which, paradoxically, can cover a diverse range of styles and tastes, BUT it is very restricted and separate, even 'of the world but not in it'.

Additionally when artists / musicians etc. aspire to excellence that is seriously frowned upon as not being 'spiritual enough', the irony is that those aspirations usually reflect true discipleship to their art.

So to become part of a church family one has to forsake their cultural position and re-learn the church's one, a restricted zone of cultural constraint. Therefore artistic quality suffers, often the committed artist's ideas are rejected and/or ignored in favour of 'safe', non-risky and, frankly, naff solutions that usually persist with mediocrity. Even more troubling is the very 'icons' within the bubble run conferences and workshops to train fledgling newbies in the art of this mediocrity.

My vision, as a muso, is to embrace God's image so vividly, poetically and beautifully demonstrated in the wealth of mainstream music whether that be Mahler or Madness!

There is much more I could say, but the anecdote of the local vicar who visited the quarry springs to mind which can be so readily applied to the arts.

He went round chatting to three of the workmen asking them the same question: 'What are you doing here, my man?'. The first responded with 'chiseling this stone', the second 'earning money to provide for my family' and then the last man smiled and said 'I'm building a Cathedral'... all absolutely true statements but...!

Leadership and guidance is critical yet I would start by placing trust in the artistic lot (read: laity!) first ;-)


Erika Baker said...

This is probably simplistic, but in an orchestra the players don't tell each other that they're the only ones who understand the composer and that unless you play according to their rules you're not contributing to the music.

Lesley said...

Hi Alan

I love the questions you are posing.. but are we comparing like with like...

- the orchestra sound great when they perform, but perhaps less so when they were practising?

- we have excluded all the crap musicians, these are the best

- they have trained for years

- these are the musicians all like classical music, this is not the place for jazz fans or rock guitarists

Jesus chose the nobodies, the prostitutes, the weak the rejected.. we are the orchestra who accepts anyone and we try our best to make a tune.

We do sound beautiful sometimes - that is why I go to Greenbelt.

Jonathan Jennings said...

‘Why is it easier to conceive of people sharing their lives and aiming for excellence in a community like a symphony orchestra than in Church? Why does religion so often seem part of the problem, not the solution?’

I’m sorry if hearing a truly inspirational orchestra has made you come home and write something truly disheartening about the church.

It's an easy enough trick, and I could reverse it quite simply;

'The Church is actually in greater danger when it does successfully imitate successful orchestras; when we might want to prioritise our free interpretation of what the Composer had in mind; when we work at pleasing a ticketed audience of those who understand and like our kind of music; when we cease to be intelligible to those who don’t readily come through the door; when we’re intent on performance not worship; when we think that what we produce has far more value than to the assembled audience even though no-one else comes; when we think the platform belongs only to the talented performers; when our acceptance is tenuous and is entirely contingent on our ability to 'meet the standard', when individuals are instantly replaceable by those clamouring to be part of the outfit who might be a better fit; when we want to say ‘listen to this’ instead of asking ‘What are you hearing?’ '

It's not difficult to do, but what is the effect of all of that? The instinct to be discouraging is one that should be questioned; go and read the ordinal again.

And, to take your questions seriously, the answers lie in the fact that our calling is not to achieve anything, let alone beauty or clarity but is always taking us towards, not rejecting, failure. The stakes are higher; the church is enmeshed; we are and should be messily involved in people and communities in which problems arise; working with and in human lives. encouraging, warning, being alonsgide and never, ever, rejecting them even when we think they can no longer perform or are out of tune and cannot pick up the rhythm. And the church, in all of us, has such unpromising raw material - we who are by turns inspired and challenged by our faith; beset and struggling with sin and temptation, tanatalised by glimpses of God at work in others but ultimately well-versed and experienced in failure.

But it's actually because the Church is attempting something humanly impossible; we go on doing it anyway, because Christ asks us to.

Peter couldn’t swim, and he knew he couldn’t swim. But when Jesus called to him, he still got out of the boat.

Ray Barnes said...

I am so sorry your commentors seem so overwhelmed by the impossibility of a truly united human-kind/church.
I loved the video and it left me feeling distictly better than before, if only Pandora would stop sitting on the lid of the b....y box!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for taking the insight on in interesting directions — BB I think you've started a really interesting reaction in my mind. Why "secular?" Where does that word occur in Scripture? Is it possible our whole idea there should be a secular world is a tad dualistic? Perhaps the bit of the stuckness we need to deconstruct next? I'm certainly with you on Mahler or Madness...

Erika, Thank you for pointing out some of the painful routines that screw up human collaboration by seizing on a strength but only on condition that it is treated as someone else's weakness.

Lesley, I'm OK about Mahler or Madness. the principles are actually remarkably consistent across the piece. The thoughts now coming to fruition on this one began for me with a Herbie Hancock concert in which exactly the same mutual respect and playfulness was shown among the group of musicians as Fergus implied drives BP. Like you, I'd love a church which chose the nobodies, the prostitutes, the weak and rejected more; and suspect a lot more of this hapens on the ground than on the floor of the General Synod!

Jonathan, Like Ray I didn't feel discouraged by the thought that our present ailments could be diagnised and addressed. I'd be far ore discouraged to think we were just stuck with what we've got for ever on a "here's to us, who's like us?" basis (not that you said that). I'm entirely with you about the transformation of non elite people, but in my experience as apriest they usually were better at personal and spiritual excellence than their hierarchical elders and betters.

As to failure, I was very influenced by "Love's endeavour, Love's expense" and in that light think I can see a positive side to where you're going. That said I sometimes encounter something I don't think was in your point of view, but could be — a weird English thing about "failure is really success." The more I think about that one, the more it does my head in! Failure is failure, but we are all under the mercy, would be closer to the way I feel about this...

Lesley said...

Thanks Alan for your response. I am a bear of simple brain - is your thesis that church would be better if we listened properly to each other, and the question is whether religion actually gets in the way of listening because it produces elements of tribalism?

It is an interesting thesis. But what if the issue is that we do listen and hear each other but our values are all different. What then? What if it is that we are trying to play Mahler and Madness at the same time?

A thesis that I am running with at the moment is that we have broadly 4 groups:
Pre-Moderns = Catholic
Moderns = two warring groups - Evangelicals and Liberals
Post-Moderns = Emergent

Ask any theological question of these groups and you will get four answers. It is discordant. But I am with you that we need the imagination to make it beautiful.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Mahler and Madness might go together. It wouldn't be any wackier than Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard ensemble?

I think I find there are at least a dozen combo groups of the sort you describe. Where people listen to each other it's by no means the case that understanding and mutuality is impossible, even between people from radically different value systems. Where they don't, and especially where they don't believe in a higher principle, to use Sam's phrase, real problems come in. So I think I'm more concerned about the first kind of problem than the second you described; but it's only a hypothesis, although I might relate it to the tension Jesus identified between Pharisees and others.

Jonathan Jennings said...

Yes, thank you! Point taken.

But I'm just trying to remember the last time a bishop was heard saying something straightforwardly encouraging about the church as an institution.

I think the negative language is incredibly seductive, easy to master and becomes the reflexive mode of expression of first choice, especially in an increasingly volatile environment where such language is readily understood and welcomed.

One of the first rules of transformation is that people tend to become what you tell them they are. If you tell us for long enough that we're a dysfunctional unstable institution, mired in self pity and frozen by fear of extinction, please don't be surprised if we begin to exhibit rather precisely those symptoms.

One of the real disappointments after fifteen years away from parish ministry has been the massive growth in indifference towards the structures; the tendency to regard the paying of any kind of institutional dues (support for deanery synod, attendance at diocesan initiatives and the paying of parish share, come to that) as hardly a matter of priority.

There are things we're good at, institutionally, and I challenge you to say so ...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I take your point, too Jonathan. We all do indeed absorb patterns of thinking and speaking from our contexts, and whingeing pom is certainly out there as fragrance of the decade.

I was intrigued that what you found discouraging, Ray, who has more recently come to faith int he C of E finds encouraging.

I can only say that, quite apart from the Gospel requirements of ascesis, I am not particularly encouraged by people talking things up. I find that many Church members I meet are very realistic, focussed and courgageous; not infantilised and up for more of a challenge than they sometimes get. I think you're right that confidence is very close to faith.

I also find, however, in your question a really helpful challenge about the means for our institutions (for there really is no such thing as "the national Church") renewing themselves corporately‚ a dimension that doesn't sit happily in English cultures (compare and contrast US and UK attitudes to the National Anthem?), but does matter.

All I'd add is that my line of questioning here has been more about process than structures. The ways we do what we do seem to me to be the places the battle (if that's what ti is) is won or lost. I haven't found the contributions so far, or the original question, as depressing as you have, and I'm interested as to why...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

PS, interesting comment on encouragement and process onb the masthead of the irrepressible ASBO Jesus:

Peter Banks said...

Thanks for your responses, totally agree about the use of the word 'secular', would love your thoughts, if a such moment arises in your schedule, on my blog rant on that very subject specifically related to music?!

Anonymous said...

VG here.

I read a Quaker blog regularly, and think we could learn from this entry, which clarified some of the more practical aspects of these questions, at least for me:

In my household we listen to almost everything except pallid electronic-drum-packaged pop; I find repetitive beats of certain frequencies physically painful and emotionally upsetting. (They remind me of gunfire in daily newscasts from Viet Nam and i have dicky weird hearing.) There's a lot of Nixon in China sung in the shower of a morning. But that doesn't mean I don't try to look for that of God in everyone, in all the world's musicians, remembering also my own weaknesses and inability to deal with some of the other things which are not of God.

@Erika, you'd be surprised at just how much some symphony players do indulge in the criticisms you articulate ;-), from time to time, but the key issue is that at performance time they almost always knuckle down and do the job.

tsquare21 said...

A Prayer From Jesus

Jesus I brought this prayer to your people and they rejected it. So I added a comment on the importance of this prayer and your plan of Salvation, again no responses. Finally with fire and brimstone, mentioned their destination, it was as if they could not even hear.

Jesus am I to be a profit as unto Jeremiah or like unto Jonah. I fell like Jonah, no matter what I want to do, You all ways command me to do this small task, deliver Your prayer. Except the results are as unto Jermiah. When not one obeyed when You said, they will find safety out of the city.

Jesus, you created me as neither but one of power, in Jesus NAME. Devil in the NAME of JESUS I bind you in Jesus name. Release your hold on those who will be called, son's of Jesus. I command you in JESUS NAME to be gone from all who read this post, in Jesus Name. For the glory is yours alone Jesus. I lift your Name up in Praise now, Lord Jesus. Open my eyes in Jesus Name and let me receive from You, this very hour in JESUS NAME.

This prayer is from Jesus that we may hear from Him, that He may speak to our hearts. It only consist of three simple steps.

1, We need to read one scripture. This will focus us in the word that brings everlasting life.

2, Since this prayer is from Jesus we need to direct our prayer to Him personally. Too often Christian focuses they're prayer's to G_D or Father. Scripture proclaims, that Jesus should be the focus of our prayer.

3, The simplest part of this Prayer is to ask Jesus one question. Please, all that is required for this question is that it should be simple. Let Jesus Himself finish the question when He gives you that understanding through this prayer.


A) The scripture that is the focus of this prayer is "ACTS 2:38". It's not necessary to do any study into this scripture. Jesus will give you the understanding that will resonate in your heart. Just read Acts 2:38, keep it in your heart and take this one scripture to prayer

B) The most important part of this prayer is that we need to direct our prayer directly to Jesus. If you normally would say Father in your prayer, change your focus from the Father to Jesus, by lifting Jesus name up every time you would normally use Father in your prayer.

C) Maybe the hardest part of this prayer is the question that we need to ask Jesus. For man is always trying to understand the question, instead of listening to the answer. The simplest question is all that is required.
Simply ask Jesus, 'WHY'?

For those who are obedient

maggi said...

An orchestra at its best makes a nice metaphor for Church. Inspiring metaphors are good for all kinds of communities to remember what they are for and how we can work better. But the Church is no worse than the average (or even the world class) orchestra. I know a number of people who work in top orchestras, and they have plenty of dog-eat-dog stuff going on, insubordination, hating the leader, bullying and all the rest of it. It's a human problem, not just a religious one. So by all means let's be inspired by the metaphor, but don't let's imagine that other organisations have it all together and only the church struggles with dysfunctional relationships!

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